Well, not really.


I put forward my name to support other women writers as part of the splendid Womentoring Project – but not without a certain amount of tummy-jiggling anxiety. As soon as I saw the call, I definitely wanted to help. I know how much a few kind and honest words can mean – yet I felt something of an imposter.

This is how my mind rumbled on:

OK, I am a woman. And I do have a smidge of experience. But I am one of The Great Unpublished [barring a few short stories and poems]. So far,  I’m an also-ran, a runner-up, a we-really-like-your-work-but-it’s-not-for-us writer. I bet they want someone better – a real, proper author.

It made me hesitate.


But then I remembered the whiteboards. You see, I was a primary school teacher way back when interactive whiteboards first came in. I didn’t have much idea – and in the way of these things, it was fitted at the end of of August as the class came in early September. I hadn’t the chance to get one toenail ahead of the children, never mind a step.

It worked out fine. Being pretty much ‘equal’ with the pupils really worked. They helped me, I helped them. There could be no ‘this is the only way to do it’ rigidity – we experimented together. I call that a good result.

Two young share hot drinks over a laptop. One is black, one wears a headscarf.

I wish I was as young as these two!

The same with my brief but oh-so-rewarding stint as a Graduate Editorial Assistant at West Dean College. I had just completed my MA IN Creative Writing – and I got the chance to work with the next ‘batch’, so-to-speak. There are few better ways of interrogating and consolidating your hard-won knowledge than explaining it to someone else. Especially if they are smart and motivated and questioning.


So I have offered my services. I’ve left it open-ended – I am happy to negotiate with any mentee I get to suit her needs. It turns out that I do have some things to share – I review books for two sites, I volunteer with British SCBWI,  and I am a writer, after all.

Please visit The Womentoring Project to learn more  about being a mentee – or a mentor.

Illustrations copyright Sally Jane Thompson

What! You too?

From the words of C.S.Lewis

‘Friendship is born at that moment when one man says to another: “What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . .”‘

This afternoon I had a visit I had been both looking forward to – and dreading. For some while I knew a fellow writer was going to call. Someone who set out about the same time as I did, who is talented and committed, and who wanted to talk about writing.


By Guaderel Guitarist Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial No Derivative Works 3.0-License.

The gap of time allowed my maungy, sad little twin demons of envy and fear to whisper at me. They blew sleet-cold worries down my neck.

I bet he’ll have been published already.

You’ll have to admit you’ve got nowhere yet.

How will you feel when he gets out a book with his name on?

What exactly have you got to show for over four years’ effort?

It didn’t help that it’s close to my least favourite time of year – Mothering Sunday – when I always feel insecure and vulnerable. Nor that I am waiting to hear if any agents are interested in my Selkie novel. It took some arm twisting from my Chi-SCBWI friends to put it out there again.

My unarmoured head feels so exposed above the ramparts.Close up a battered ancient helmet

He came. And over time and coffee, his honesty dissolved my mask, just as surely as his daughter’s marshmallows disappeared from her little cup in the cafe. I could see the same kind-ness of hard-won understanding in his face. The empathy of time served and mutual frustration.

No need for me to hide. We’re more siblings than rivals.

That broke me open, let the old warmth out and sent the two stony nasties back into their cave. And what rolled the boulder across their threshold was his absolute need to write. The imperative, regardless of sense and logic and all the will-it-make-a-living questions to get the stories down. How the breath of his ideas filled his canvas, blew him onwards.

I hope my friend reads this.

It’s not ‘you will get there‘ I want to engrave on maps of the future, surrounded by mermen and whales. There is no need when you have already left land and certainty.

But we already have successes to share – and there will be more.GoldLaurelWreath_CC

We are both writers.

Landscape – with editor

A painting of a figure walking a long a beach by David Pott.

Study by David Pott

After over six weeks of lying in a metaphorical drawer, I am looking at one of my scripts. The frenzy that was NaNoWriMo certainly meant I wasn’t thinking about it during that period, and I am now able to look at it with some detachment.

I can see the sparse clearings and the lush dells; engage with the inhabitants I had grown to love, and generally see the wood for the trees.

a picture of an old tree in a forest

There will have to be felling of some parts – and some judicious pruning. I may have to sacrifice some sub-plots I had lovingly tended to make the whole thing healthier and stronger – like a fire-break has to be cut through the forest at times. And even the best and sternest of lumberjacks needs help, I expect.

I had hoped that my MA ( can it really be two years ago?) would equip me to edit better. I think I am a slow learner at times – or just plain inexperienced. So I am buying help in. There’s a small, whiny, possibly egotistical voice, says that this is failure.

This book – if it ever gets published – may well end up costing me more than I could ever earn from it. Nonetheless, I have learned a great deal. If nothing else, tremendous respect for those whose work is good enough to be published – and in some cases, downright awe.

a gargoyle sits thoughtfully in some ivy

I do hope I can get the best out of the advice. That I can  sit on my ego – hard. That I can find the humility to accept what is said in the spirit it is meant – and the self-confidence to argue my point when I really have one.

I’ve read my story again – and I can honestly say, some of it is good. Now I need help to make it better.

a little girl takes big steps with the help of  her grandfather

Read all about it

I spent much of today in the rather delightful Book Nook in Hove. (I can recommend the rhubarb and ginger cake). It was good to hear a proper bookseller helping both adults and children find the right books for them with tact and knowledge.

I have to say how amused and impressed I was when a rather ambitious yummy mummy was steered ever so gently towards the concept of reading for pleasure – as opposed to reading to achieve. A triumph of manoeuvring.

The babble of babies and small children was a surprisingly pleasing background to editing tasks – perhaps reminding me of why I bother. I completed a major task – and then rewarded myself with a good browse.

What a pleasure it was to see the work of people I know at least by sight (in no particular order):

  • Dave Cousins
  • Lucy Christopher
  • Malorie Blackman
  • Meg Rossoff
  • Patrick Ness
  • Teri Terry
  • Jon Mayhew
  • Chris Riddell

The astute reader will have noticed how many of these are SCBWI folk. And there were more, I am certain. It gave me an interesting feeling of companionship to see them – and maybe a sense of pride. Pride that fellow children’s writers and illustrators made such lovely things.

I also felt a sense of achievement in knowing my genres, ages and stages much better these days. This is much to do with my reading for the lovely Vivienne da Costa at Serendipity Reviews. There is nothing like reading to give you a sense of the world of children’s literature – it’s just so broad and fascinating.

In the main , it’s good to see your friends and colleagues succeed – the world of writing for young readers is big enough for all of us. I would be a liar if I didn’t admit to the odd stab of pain when someone I know gets published – when I’ve just had another rejection. BUT it is only transient.

And if it’s a brilliant book, well, all the more for me to enjoy. That goes for authors and genres I didn’t know before, too.

Something to sing about.

Yet the very best thing is realising that I do have a distinctive voice emerging. I haven’t read anything quite like my work yet. Of course it might be that it’s uniquely weird – but that’s not necessarily a problem. Uniquely bad would be – but seriously, I know it isn’t that awful.

So I feel rather buoyed up by that – though a few quid lighter!

Who would have thought I’d buy books?

How about you – what does a bookshop browse do for you?


Bolstering my faith

(A much more cheery post than the last.)

I am reflecting on the comments of my book champion (God bless her) who got ‘The Selkies of Scoresby Nab’ onto the Times/Chicken House Children’s Fiction long-list for 2012

How I imagine a book champion might look.

Reasons to be cheerful – what the reader said that validated my writing:

  • well-written and moving – the MA was well worth it, then
  • narrative voice is incredibly strong jump and down with delight – isn’t that what everyone say they want from a writer?
  • a convincing Northern dialectwell, it is pretty much my own 
  • distinctive and attractive sense of place and periodI spent a lot of time there and then imaginatively at least – you won’t quite find Scoresby on a map
  • Mattie undergoes a true journey of self-discovery, finding out not only who and what he is, but also what he is made of. The story has told itself well then – and that’s what makes it ‘moving’. I still can’t read a certain bit without sniffling.

Points to ponder – I’m not sure yet where these will lead me – here are some immediate thoughts:

  • The lyrical, poetic quality of the writing and story may work better for girl readersI am deeply uncomfortable with the idea of gendered books. 
  • With this in mind, it may be worth considering if Mattie could perhaps work better as a girl – although that could have too much of a knock-on effect on other plot points, and the relationships/friendships. She is so right about the consequences of such a change. He has been Mattie Henshaw, complete with name, from the off. I did try doing a girl version at one point – but it felt wrong. Mmmm.
  • Does the period-feel work for a contemporary reader? The current challenges of selling period fiction in the children’s market would need to be considered. Sorry, but that’s not my problem. I can no more write contemporary fiction than fly. Besides, what about the sales of steampunk & gas-lamp fantasy?
  • Is the story and the writing unique enough? Now that’s a biggie.
Final thoughts
  • She usedcharmingtwice – aaargh – I shall have to get grittier!
  • I really love the feel, pace and detail in this manuscript. – I could hug her.
  • The author can really write. Huzzah!
So all-in-all with all those lovely things said, I’m slightly at a loss how 

there might be possible scope for working editorially with the author to make this book the best it can be.

Ah well. I’m always up for developing my skills.

Let’s see what I can do with ‘Georgiana and the Municipal Moon‘ at The Golden Egg Academy 23rd & 24th March, then.


The Next Big Thing

Thanks to Jo Wyton for tagging me!

What is the working title of your book? 

The Selkies of Scoresby Nab.

Where did the idea come from for the book? 

I’m a scuba diver and one of the most magical things I’ve ever done was diving with seals. This rekindled my love for the Selkie legends – although I’d never come across one from Yorkshire. So I decided to create one. I used the viewpoint of a boy whose mother was a seal  – but who did not know.

What genre does your book fall under?

It’s a children’s historical fantasy. (It makes me feel ancient to call the Sixties history – but they are to ten-year-olds!)

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a film version? 

I think it would be have to be animated. I’d love actors with convincing Yorkshire accents to do the voice overs, mind you. Dame Judi Dench would do a fine Grandma and Sir Patrick Stewart, Granddad. But the central younger characters would be better off as complete unknowns.

What is a one-sentence synopsis of your book? 

When troublesome Mattie Henshaw is sent to his grandparents’ house on Scoresby Nab, he doesn’t expect to discover a sea-going family he never knew he had, or to have to save them from slaughter.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency? 

I don’t have an agent – yet. It has been long-listed for the Mslexia Children’s Novel Competition 2012, though.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript? 

I wrote the first draft as the main work in my MA in Creative Writing from West Dean College which I finished in one year ( 2011)

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I think it’s unique. It has a distinct Northern voice – so you might be reminded of David Almond‘ s writing or ‘Kes’, and there are magical parts that might make you think of Katherine Langrish‘s work or Pat Walsh‘s.

Who inspired you to write this book? 

My amazing taskmaster of an MA tutor, Greg Mosse ( yes, he is husband to Kate Mosse) and way back in history, my old English mistress, Miss Grey – who believed in me.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest? 

If they have ever wanted to swim like a seal , or enjoyed the magic of the sea, then this is a book for them.



I haven’t got anyone else to tag – would you like a go? Please?

Good things come in threes, too.

Number One
I’m off to Chi-Scbwi tonight, thanks to a lift from my good friend, Kathryn Evans. Several times a year a bunch of us local writers and artists get together and have a chinwag. It’s great – we are all at different ages and stages – and we support each other as only creative types can! ( make of that what you will)
Number Two
I have finished the first draft of Georgiana and the Municipal Moon (working title) today. 86k all told – a lot of which is piffle – but now I can have my own NaNoEdMo, if you see what I mean.
Number Three
My MA novel,  The Selkies of Scoresby Nab, has been long-listed for the Mslexia Children’s Novel Competition. Hoorah!

It’s not me. Honest.

Storming the Citadel

Last night I went to Chichester’s rather lovely Assembly Rooms to listen to Kate Mosse talk about her intriguing new novel, Citadel. I had downloaded and read the beginning ,quite legitimately, I might add, and thought it might well suit my husband. We had been to Carcassonne,  and seen many of the streets in the Bastide which I knew were significant.

A delightful chap from the local Waterstones gave a preamble mentioning the many Kates – all facets of this inspiring and multi-talented woman. Her mother spoke up for Kate the Daughter – which caused a ripple of laughter. He also mentioned her previous titles but forgot ‘The Winter Ghosts’. A copy fell down shortly after. More amusement.

Through careful questioning by her husband, Greg, she took us through the stages taken to reach the finished work. I was pleased when she said ‘Sometimes the characters are not who you think they are’ and went onto explain how they emerge and assert their own traits. How many other writers have experienced this, I wonder?

It was fascinating, if humbling as a writer, to hear about her punishing work schedule. Up at three – coffee – write – jog – eat a little – write some more and so on… She deserves every success with effort like that. Especially when you consider that her beloved father died during the writing of this book.

The shadow of real life on every page of the draft .

Those who have read any of  Kate’s previous works will know how much the spirit of place informs what she does (another notion I aspire to). She spoke of the ‘shadows that you still feel in Carcassonne’ and how the events of 1942 can decide which cafe a person frequents in 2012. There were some deeply moving anecdotes – and in a strange way, it was good to see that these still affected her, despite all the research. She has not lost the emotional connection with the Languedoc over her 23 years of work.

She clearly knows her stuff, yet self-effacingly prefaces detailed facts with ‘As I am sure many of you will know…’ I also cannot help but warm to a woman who admits that ‘novelists are shockingly nosey and inveterate liars’. She is a great smiler and does not take herself too seriously.

For me, the fact that she wanted to tell the hidden history of women and commemorate the ordinary people who couldn’t turn a blind eye,  was appeal enough – but there had to be more before I would get it for my husband. It came with her enthusiasm for adventure stories: H. Rider Haggard and the like:

I like big juicy novels.

And when she said ‘Really, it’s girls with guns,’ and  ‘It’s all about that action!’ I just knew it would fit the bill. As a Sussex man, he would also appreciate the value for money of 700 pages.

So I coughed up and had it signed by both Kate – and Greg. As one of Greg’s MA graduates, I was privileged to be invited to the after-party at Amelie & friends, which was a lovely mixed, inclusive event ( with rather nice olives too). Kate gave an emotional  thank-you speech stood on a chair. I will not forget the deep affection expressed there for her husband and his support. I will always treasure this book as a symbol of the kindness I get from mine.

The Case of the Invisible Girls

This is a very simple post addressed to fellow writers, illustrators and publishers especially for younger children.

Where are all the girls?

photo by katiek2


I looked in ‘Carousel’ – these are my stats for the Spring 2012 edition.

  • Babies Books: 9 books reviewed , 2 male central characters & 7 neutral.
  • Toddlers: 8 books reviewed, 5 male central characters, 1 female and 2 neutral
  • Picture Books: 15 reviewed, 8 male central characters, 5 female and 2 neutral
  • First Steps: 8 books reviewed, 6 male central characters, 1 female and 1 neutral
  • Reading Alone: 14 reviews, 5 male central characters, 4 female & 5 neutral
  • Reading with Confidence: 13 reviews, 5 male leads, 6 female & 2 neutral
Out of 67 books, 31 had male leads, 19 had either a neutral or an equal balance, and only 17 had female central characters. That gives 46% male (OK) 28% neither/both & 25% female. Take out the books that had an equal ratio or featured neither and this remains:

65% male to 35% female central characters

Now I have no wish to criticise ‘Carousel’ – it reports what there is – and it might be just a statistical blip. So I thought I’d better cross-check with Amazon.

I won’t bore you with the full breakdown but here’s a summary:

  • out of the top 30 best-sellers from 0-8, 14 featured male characters, 11 were neutral or balanced, and 5 had female leads.
  • 47% male, 37 % neutral & 16% female
  • 74% male to 26% female (if you take out the neutral books)
I did the same with ‘The Book People’:
  • out of the 60  Top Ten books promoted in ranges from Babies through to 9+, 32 featured male central characters, 14 were neutral & 14 female
  • 70% versus 30%
What on earth is going on?

Photograph by D Sharon Pruitt

To my shame, this is a rough transcript of a conversation betwen me and an agent for children’s writers.
‘I’m stuck – need to choose between a boy or a girl as my  central character in my 9+ fantasy adventure – which would you suggest?’
‘Well, if you really can’t choose any other way, then the boy commercially speaking.’
‘Oh. Why?’
‘Girls will read books with a boy central character- but boys won’t read it if it’s a girl.‘ ( my emphasis)

by youleah

So all my readers that have anything to do with books – what on earth do we do about this?

Them bones, them bones…

This week I have been working on the underlying structure of my work-in-progress (provisionally called ‘Georgiana and the Municipal Moon’).  I’d be dishonest if I didn’t remark on how much there is to think about.

It’s set in an alternative Regency England – but I want consistency so I’m using the years 1808/9 for days of the week , phases of the moon and tides. Even though I’ve dreamt up the City of Selchester, I do want my Sussex geography to be feasible (magic notwithstanding) and the details of everyday life to be convincingly Georgian. Research into where and when and how can throw up no end of plot possibilities – and problems.

Regency Ladies by O. Benson

Then there’s the question of scenes and chapters. Each one must add something to the plot and the reader’s understanding of the characters as well as having a crescendo. Why would you read on if the scene isn’t going somewhere?

So I’ve been happily imagining what the exit point of each scene might be. Sometimes it’s a steady build-up, in others, a different strand comes to interrupt the flow and forms the climax. All good stuff – it’s taken four rough drafts to get this far.

One thing I’ve tried this time is working backwards. It sounds odd, and it is a brain-strain, but it does make sure everything pays off.

Here’s a ‘frinstance’:

I knew I needed a particular character to successfully forge a signature on a document. By tracing that in reverse, I could put in an earlier moment where they are praised for their handwriting (much to another character’s disgust) and and even earlier incident where someone who might spot the forgery is shown to be unlikely to. The difficult bit is making this none-too-obvious: lots of head-scratching and the use of distraction were needed.

So now ( version 5) I have a dirty great long sequence of discrete episodes grouped into chapters. There are some gaps with notes like Her experience at school will be largely unpleasant – but by-and-large, it is done. My foetus has vertebrae.

Image by Leo Reynolds

How do you tackle the spine of your work?